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The Deal with Drugs

Drugs are a scourge to society with the power to catalyze a major public health crisis. But on college campuses, they may simply be seen as a quintessential element of the party scene. In our next episode, hosts Aidan Calvelli ‘ 19 and Noah Cowan ’19 will tease out the complexities of drug use beyond the protective bubble of the college campus.
Special Thanks to:
Professors Mark Suchman and Patience Moyo
Podcast Associates: Kate Dario, Moses Lurbur, Henry Peebles-Capin, Rachel Lim, Tobi Lepecki, and Izzy Belleza
Hosts: Aidan Calvelli and Noah Cowan
Executive Producer: Emily Skahill



Drug use inhabits a peculiar space in our national discourse, both in the general American public and here at Brown.

On the one hand, drugs are a scourge to society with the power to break up families and entire communities; and on the other, they may be perceived as tools for partying — essential components to a fun night out.  

Whether we see drugs as the catalysts of a major public health crisis, or as mechanisms of experimentation and self-discovery has a lot to do the particular identities and privileges we bring to our encounters with drugs.

And what’s more, we can see these dueling realities as they play out in significant ways in the public arena. While the legalization of marijuana in states like California and Oregon is normalizing recreational drug use, we are simultaneously seeing the effects of the opioid crisis as it hits home in tangible ways. Within the past decade, overdose has become the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.  

Today on BPRadio we’re exploring a critical moment in United States history: We’re living at a time in which our experiences with drug use are fundamentally embedded in racial and socioeconomic disparities. Moreover, the policymakers that are formulating measures to combat drug use often hold different privileges and relationships with drugs than the people these policies are affecting.

On today’s episode: Does higher education somehow contribute to the growing public health crisis that is occuring outside the bubble of the college campus? That’s up next.

[intro music]

Brown has long held the dubious distinction of being the “stoner” school of the Ivy League. It’s a reputation borne out of the perception that Brown’s campus is more drug-friendly than similar institutions.

To better understand the drug culture here at Brown, we decided to begin by having some conversations with students to learn how they felt about drug use on campus, and how their experiences have informed their beliefs.

… And, interestingly, we picked up on a few central themes from these conversations. The first had to do with legality. For most Brown students, the legal consequences of drug use play an almost negligible role in their decisions to experiment with drugs:

Anonymous responder: In high school, the sense of legal punishment felt a little bit more present for some reason. Maybe just because there was just more adult supervision generally speaking. But I think at Brown, no is the answer to that question.

Anonymous responder: I think that Brown feels relatively unsupervised and the culture here is widely accepting of it.

Anonymous responder: Generally speaking, I think that drug use at Brown is pretty safe overall. And I think that often times it is approached in the right way, which is an approach of mitigation of harm instead of outright prohibition… I think generally the university takes a pretty effective tack when it comes to mitigating harm.

Sociologist Mark Suchman also weighed in on the conversation with some insight into how different people relate with the law, and the continuity of factors that might contribute to someone’s decision to engage in illicit drug use:

Emily: Are there times where the law on its own is not enough to encourage obedience? And if not, what are extralegal factors that may determine whether or not we obey the law?

Suchman:  I think there are times when the law isn’t enough. Partly of course because you see there are times when people break the law, but also because a lot of variation in why people comply with — in any society with a given set of legal rules, and even within any given neighborhood with similar levels of enforcement — some people are complying with the law   and some people aren’t. Different models of decision-making would offer different stories about that. A rational choice model would say that some people come to different calculations about the probability of being caught or the severity of being caught. The rational choice perspective would focus on those sorts of things. 

From these conversations, we gathered that legality — or rather, the lack of legal consequences — actually pointed to a much bigger piece of the puzzle in the drug culture at Brown. One student had a particularly apt description:

Anonymous responder: My flippancy with drugs is a direct product of the safety nets I have here. 

This seemed to be the underlying theme in most of our conversations. On the whole, students either explicitly or implicitly   alluded to the low-stakes nature of drug use on college campuses. The lack of consequences — both physically and legally.

In addition to almost nonexistent punitive repercussions, the University invests in a lot of protections to ensure that students who do decide to use drugs use them safely.

Anonymous responder: One thing that I know that the university does which I am in very pro is that they give a lot of money and resources to Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which is a national organization with a local chapter at Brown University and one of their biggest jobs is in the week before Spring Weekend- because that’s a very high risk time when it comes to people doing drugs that they otherwise wouldn’t be doing at other points during the semester or during the year. The university helps pay for a bunch of drug testing kits and you know people who are in SSDP- students for sensible drug policy- they are on call pretty much all week and they just like field a whole bunch of different requests for testing a whole bunch of different drugs and like make sure that people’s drugs are the drugs that people think they are and like give advice to people who have never done it before.

Fundamentally, this lowers the stakes for drug use on college campuses. As one student sees it,

Anonymous responder: That level of comfort and that safety net is not the way the rest of the world has a relationship with drugs.

That “safety net” — that protective bubble — call it what you will, it shields college students from the legal ramifications and physiological consequences of illicit or unsafe drug use… And in talking with students, there was one word that seemed to pop up a lot: Privilege.

Anonymous responder: I actually worked with this woman in the Blue Room who had just gotten arrested for smoking weed in her apartment building… She was about to go to a trial in a couple week. Looking at the difference between us just smoking in our dorms and our privilege in the way we’re able to use drugs

Anonymous responder: It’s definitely true that the way we approach drugs and alcohol is totally and completely independent of the way the rest of the world – or the country specifically – sees that. So there’s so much privilege in the way that I can interact with substances that I just don’t think about.

Anonymous responder: I feel like drug use on college campuses since it comes out of a place of privilege and since many people don’t talk about it it really it contributes to the opioid crisis because it’s promoting drug use but in kind of like an unnoticed and underhanded way.

Clearly, we as college students are buffered from the most dangerous repercussions of drug use. Whether it’s having access to resources for coping with addiction, having the time, money, and tools to ensure safe drug use, or avoiding ‘real world’ legal consequences, privilege rears its ugly head in many serious matters related to drug use. And this translates quite directly to campus culture, where drugs are mechanisms for partying and experimentation.

But, as the undergraduates of today become the policymakers of the future, we have to ask ourselves whether that awareness of socioeconomic and racial privilege is in itself enough to formulate socially responsible policies that respond to the needs of the communities most impacted by the adverse effects of drug use. We posed this same question to Sociologist Mark Suchman,

Suchman: For people who are high commitment drug users, the process of stopping using drugs is radically different for someone who is a low commitment drug user – presumably – one of the reasons why drug policy often misses the mark is because most people making policies aren’t drug users or are at most casual users…

Emily: What are the implications when the people who are making laws have very different sets of experiences than the people they apply to?

Suchman: The short answer: laws don’t have intended effect; most laws have some archetypal case – some story about how the world works . the farther that is from what’s happening in the world, the law is likely pernicious/unintended/unexpected effects, and drug policy is a very plausible place to see the effects.

For example, professor Patience Moyo from Brown’s school of public health has done extensive research related to Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, which are electronic databases that track the volume of controlled substance prescriptions that are in circulation. In our conversation with her, she traced some of the unintended consequences that these PDMPs are having on the most at-risk populations in the US.

Moyo: There are fewer opioids in circulation now than there were ten years ago, perhaps. I think the plateauing might be reflecting shifts in what people at risk are using and what’s available. There’s definitely an economic part to this because prescription opioids are very expensive for people who are not able to get them through a doctor. Getting them on the street is really expensive. So for people who have an opioid use disorder, the PDMP’s making it hard for me to get prescription because the provider that I go to checks the database. What’s available on the street becomes more expensive and harder to get. That then motivates people to move to what’s more accessible — and the heroin may be more accessible and more affordable. When that shift happens, that’s really unfortunate because fentanyl and heroin are really variable in how pure they are. This increases the risk of overdose fatalities.

These sorts of unintended consequences are what Professor Suchman is referring to when he says that policymakers’ experiences with drugs are fundamentally different from the people these policies are impacting. And this ultimately has to do with the structural factors that are at play in at-risk communities across the United States.

Suchman: If your experience is that you start casually and stop casually, you could come to another kind of conclusion – drug policy is not all that important. So what if you used some drugs in college? Probably that underestimates the impact of drugs in certain communities, in subgroups and individuals who become high commitment drug users, it’s often not because they used some in college. Right? It’s because of larger structures of their neighborhoods, or their life prospects, or the frequency of drug use within their high school or what-have-you. And understanding that world and what it takes to not have people become high commitment users – to not have lives structured around drug use – that’s a challenge. And that challenge is often poorly served by saying, Well what would have kept me from using pot the first time in my dorm room?   

As Professor Moyo and Professor Suchman have said, drug policies are ineffective (at best) when deeper structural factors aren’t taken into account.

But what happens when drug policies actually reinforce or exacerbate existing structural disparities?

Suchman: Certain kinds of harsh laws can result in very high levels of incarceration, or processing through the criminal justice system. And so if you look at mass incarceration — and particularly, mass incarceration of African Americans — much of that began as a crackdown on drugs. But given differential policing across communities… There’s very little evidence that that African Americans use drugs at higher rates than the rest of the country… But there’s plenty of evidence that African Americans communities are policed at higher rates than other communities. So if you start opting zero tolerance policies, three strikes and you’re out policies, the differential impact on those communities can be quite striking. It is a byproduct of the enforcement.

Professor Moyo also pointed to some stark instances in which current policy is an inadequate response to the crisis that is gripping our nation.

Moyo: In terms of availability of treatment for opioid use disorders, there’s data that shows that fewer than 20% – 10% of individuals have access to treatment. Inadequate availability of treatment is one area where generally the government can help advance policies to help people get treatment and make it more affordable. The way treatment is delivered is in a way that is not very dignified for the people who have to go get the treatment. There needs to be more done to make access to treatment more available and doesn’t make people feel like they’re less-than… Part of it is that Medicare does not cover Methadone in its prescription drug coverage. 

Everything that we’ve talked about on today’s episode only scratches the surface of what’s going on in the arena of drug policy. Rather than giving you a comprehensive overview of the opioid crisis or trends in the legalization of marijuana, we’ve tried to trace these phenomena upstream, to understand the ways in which college drug culture might feed into current disconnects between drug policy and the real world. And through the course of this episode, we hope that we’ve at least sparked the questions of some future discussions regarding identity, privilege, and drug use.

About the Author

Emily Skahill '21 is a Senior Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Emily can be reached at